One of the many success stories of individuals impacted by Puppies Behind Bars is that of Brian Andrews, a former NYPD officer and 9/11 first responder who had been struggling with depression and PTSD. Brian also suffered from physical injuries after being shot in the line of duty, which impacted his daily life and took a toll on his family. Brian’s family turned to Puppies Behind Bars, hoping that a service dog could provide Brian with the help he needed, both physically and emotionally. In May 2018, Brian was matched with Pete, a black Lab, who quickly became his anchor through daily challenges. Pete was easily integrated into Brian’s family, who is thankful for the wide range of support that he has provided for Brian every day. When Brian is hurting, Pete knows exactly what to do. Since Pete has come into Brian’s life, his family said he is “even-tempered and more like himself,” calling Pete’s instincts a miracle.
As a part of my series about organizations making a social impact, I had the pleasure to interview Gloria Gilbert Stoga President and Founder of Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria founded Puppies Behind Bars in 1997, when she began teaching a group of carefully selected inmates at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York’s only maximum-security prison for women, to raise service dogs. She brought the first five puppies into prison on the eve of Thanksgiving to begin their training. Puppies Behind Bars has now raised more than 900 dogs, and works in six prisons in New York and New Jersey. Mrs. Stoga has extensive experience in the non-profit sector. Prior to starting Puppies Behind Bars, she served as a member of New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s Youth Empowerment Commission, whose mission was to secure private-sector summer employment for New York City youth with little means of their own in finding paying summer jobs. At the Commission, Mrs. Stoga was responsible for introducing the corporate community to the initiative and securing their commitments to provide training and jobs for the city’s underprivileged young people. Prior to joining City Hall, Mrs. Stoga was the executive director of the New York Metropolitan Committee for UNICEF where she oversaw all educational, fundraising, and community outreach initiatives in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. From 1988–1994, she was the founder and director of the Privatization Project at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs. The Privatization Project analyzed the transference of governmental entities into the hands of the private sector around the world, with a focus on the social as well as economic costs of such transactions. Mrs. Stoga received her B.S. in education from Virginia Commonwealth University and lives in New York City with her husband and three Labrador retrievers.
Thank you so much for joining us Gloria! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The initial spark that inspired me to start Puppies Behind Bars came after reading an article about Dr. Thomas Lane, a veterinarian who was running a prison/guide dog program in Gainesville, Florida. The concept moved me to the point where I saved the article and kept re-reading it every few months. I subsequently had the privilege of visiting Dr. Lane and spoke with inmates and program staff in three prisons that had his program. This left me with my own ideas about what worked well and what I could work on if I were to start my own like-minded program. I’ve always loved dogs and all animals and thought this could be the perfect way to combine personal passions with my drive to make a difference in people’s lives.
Six months later, I decided to act on my dream. I quit my job and approached Libby Pataki, who was then the First Lady of New York State. She immediately got the concept of what I wanted to do — education and rehabilitation for prison inmates; providing excellent quality working dogs for the public — and, with her help, Puppies Behind Bars was born. On the day before Thanksgiving in 1997, I started with five Labrador retriever puppies entering the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York State’s only maximum-security prison for women. I am incredibly fortunate that everything fell into place in the beginning and that people were willing to believe in my vision.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Working with war veterans, first responders, and convicted felons, I have come to see how dogs can truly change people. I know it sounds like a cliché, but the truth is that I have seen, time and time again: tough people become soft, scared people become confident, quiet people become leaders and angry people become content. I have seen that dogs can really bring out the best in people, regardless of their circumstances, and by working together with a common goal — which is to make life easier for first responders and war veterans — the divisions between people on the “outside” versus people on the “inside” begin to blur. All groups come together over dogs, and that creates a cohesiveness which I really don’t think would be possible if dogs were not the common factor.
Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?
Something really special about our organization is that we have continuously evolved since our founding to fulfill changing needs within our society and our country. After the 9/11 attacks, our program expanded beyond guide dogs to raise explosion detection canines (EDCs) that assist first responders in keeping our country safe. In 2006, we saw an immense need to help military personnel coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, and I kept thinking about how I could help them. I knew the unique benefits that service dogs could provide to these veterans.
Puppies Behind Bars has had a profound impact on our nation’s heroes, some of which have physical wounds, and many others of whom have “invisible wounds,” like PTSD. These consequences can interfere with emotional wellbeing, but also everyday life — even regular errands like going to the supermarket are difficult for individuals suffering from PTSD. I believe that one of the biggest ways that we can give back is by showing them that it’s okay to reach out for help; seeking help is not a sign of weakness. Our program, and the support of our service dogs, helps to bring our heroes back to who they are as people, no matter what daily challenges stand before them. The transformation process for the dog, as well as the veterans, first responders, and their families, is inspiring.
Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?
One of the many success stories of individuals impacted by Puppies Behind Bars is that of Brian Andrews, a former NYPD officer and 9/11 first responder who had been struggling with depression and PTSD. Brian also suffered from physical injuries after being shot in the line of duty, which impacted his daily life and took a toll on his family. Brian’s family turned to Puppies Behind Bars, hoping that a service dog could provide Brian with the help he needed, both physically and emotionally.
In May 2018, Brian was matched with Pete, a black Lab, who quickly became his anchor through daily challenges. Pete was easily integrated into Brian’s family, who is thankful for the wide range of support that he has provided for Brian every day. When Brian is hurting, Pete knows exactly what to do. Since Pete has come into Brian’s life, his family said he is “even-tempered and more like himself,” calling Pete’s instincts a miracle.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
In today’s society, it’s incredible that we are seeing so many public figures open up about their own struggles with mental health, bringing this issue into the mainstream conversation. However, we’re still seeing a noticeable stigma around speaking out about mental health and the issues people face. I believe that our leaders at all levels need to do more to encourage open dialogue around mental health issues. People of all ages should feel empowered to open up about what they are going through and face their challenges head on by seeking out possible treatment and solutions, rather than feeling like they are going through it alone. I feel very strongly that police officers need to be able to say that they have PTSD from things they have witnessed and experienced in their careers. There is still a lot of stigma around that, but if police unions and departments support their ranks when they say they need help, I bet that communities will be 100 percent behind them.
Support for non-profit organizations like Puppies Behind Bars empowers us to continue to do the work we do. We believe that dogs can change lives and there are many ways that community members and individuals can support our mission, whether through giving their time, or a monetary donation. We are funded entirely by private contributions. For more information on how you can help us, please visit https://puppiesbehindbars.com/support-us/.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
In my opinion, leadership is defined by being willing to make very tough decisions, even when they are unpopular. An example with Puppies Behind Bars is that we are 100 percent committed to everyone’s success — the veteran’s or first responder’s success, the inmate’s success and the dog’s success. We do our very best to pair our dogs with inmates, or as we say, “puppy raisers”, with whom we think there will be success, but there are times we have to change the pairings because the dogs will do better with a puppy raiser with different skills or a different personality. There have also been times (thank goodness just a few) where we’ve had to take dogs away from veterans because the relationship was not working out. These are very difficult decisions, but I think it speaks to our integrity and our leadership that we are willing to do what is hard rather than just let things slide because it seems easier. At Puppies Behind Bars, the wellbeing of the humans, as well as the dogs, is of utmost importance to us and this may sometimes call for tough decisions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
It’s probably better no one told me how much work it would be or else I might have been scared off! I think when starting a non-profit, you have to be ready for a huge amount of work; you have to flexible and resilient — when things don’t turn out the way you planned, don’t get stuck on what didn’t work but instead create a new path that will.
I also think that being open-minded is crucial. I absolutely love that I work with a lot of people who, on the surface, I may not have that much in common with. When I get to know them, I find out that what binds us together far outweighs what keeps us apart. You must also passionately, fully and completely believe in what you are doing. Passion is what’s going to keep you going when things get really tough; it’s also the trait that will bring people to want to work with you.
Finally, I wish someone had told me the importance of having the ability to laugh at yourself. I can’t count how many mistakes I made, especially in the beginning, but if I couldn’t laugh at some of the unintentionally dumb things I did, I would have felt overwhelmed.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I know it sounds totally corny, but I would love a movement where people look at what we all have in common instead of seeing only how we differ. I have learned a ton about the world, our country, our culture, and myself from people who at first, I thought were totally different from me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Avoid mission creep. In our 22 years of existence, Puppies Behind Bars has responded to how the world around us has changed, but we have never lost track of our mission, which was — and still is — to train prison inmates to raise working dogs who will go out in the world to help someone. This mission was true when we were raising guide dogs for the blind, when we added raising explosive detection canines in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, when we switched to raising service dogs for wounded war vets instead of raising guide dogs for the blind; and it is still true as we now focus on dogs for first responders as well as veterans. Everyone involved in our organization is focused on getting the best working dogs possible into the hands of those who need them most.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Steven Spielberg. I admire how he built his success from scratch and think he would have the passion, as well as, obviously the immense talent, to create a public awareness campaign to reach first responders who need help.
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